Queer and Trans Muslim Narratives of Resistance, at SOMArts

“The Third Muslim” is as overdue as it is timely, but mounting it involved a dispute with Customs (and a lot more).

Work by Hushidar Mortezaie, from a work called “Occupy Me: Topping From the Bottom.” Photo by Jonathan Curiel

Anyone who has binge-watched season three of Sex and the City or studied the Brad Pitt movie Fight Club has seen Hushidar Mortezaie’s creations. Mortezaie, who friends call Hushi (pronounced “who-she”), is an artist and fashion designer who frequently incorporates faces and words into his work. On Sarah Jessica Parker’s HBO series, the actress wore a tight-fitting Mortezaie dress that featured the profile of a beautiful Persian woman amid Persian lettering and flowers.

The faces and words in Mortezaie’s newest art piece are way more complicated, but that’s no surprise since Mortezaie is part of a groundbreaking San Francisco exhibit called “The Third Muslim: Queer and Trans* Muslim Narratives of Resistance and Resilience.” Mortezaie’s three figures at SOMArts are symbols of gay Muslim emancipation — set in some unnamed future, but adorned with biographies of gay Muslims from the recent and ancient past. The figures are both serious and campy, and are out front with their sexuality. Two of the dressed mannequins are chained together, quasi-bondage style. The third dressed mannequin incorporates the face of a gay Iranian actor with body parts that are suggestive of male and female physiques.

“He’s a very strong figure who represents parts of me and my friends and my transsexual friends,” Mortezaie tells SF Weekly on a recent evening at SOMArts as he stands before his art piece, Occupy Me: Topping From the Bottom. “This figure reminds me of me dealing with being gay and effeminate and dealing with my masculinity. I’ve taken this figure into the future, where the gender has dissolved. In Islam, Allah is kind of above gender. This is a figure that morphs everything.”

“The Third Muslim” features 14 Muslim artists, each of whom offers a different window into the lives of non-binary Muslims — including a photographic series of Muslims looking directly at the viewer (Samra Habib’s Just Me and Allah: Photographs of Queer Muslims); poems that describe love, Islamophobia, family, and immigration (Kaamila Mohamed’s writing, which is both printed and recorded for audio listening); and art videos that interpret the intersectionality of being Arab and queer (Jamil Hellu’s Shroud and Once Upon a Time).

The exhibit’s curators — Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Yas Ahmed — say “The Third Muslim” celebrates the experiences of being gender non-conforming and Muslim. While orthodox adherents of Islam frequently demonize LGBTQ Muslims, and say their practices are heretical — something that mirrors orthodox beliefs in other religions, it should be noted — Bhutto and Ahmed say “The Third Muslim” avoids the theme of victimhood.

Around 1.8 billion Muslims live in the world, across every continent. Non-binary Muslims have existed in Islam from the beginning. “The Third Muslim” gives 14 of them a chance to speak for themselves — unfiltered through mainstream media voices or curators who may only be half-interested in the lives and thoughts of non-gender-conforming Muslims. Bhutto says he tried to arrange a similar exhibit at another gallery, but that the gallery didn’t respond, perhaps because it didn’t see much commercial potential in the project. Many films and books have addressed the subject of Islam and homosexuality — as in the 2007 documentary A Jihad for Love — but few if any previous art exhibits have approached the subject in such an in-depth and highly personal way. The exhibit doesn’t attempt to define “Islam,” or the level of each artist’s faith.

“This show in many ways is overdue,” Ahmed says in an email interview. “I have heard cravings for a similar platform for years — cravings for discursive shifts, for a public space where stories and voices directly from queer and trans* Muslims are what leads, for socially engaged art that is honest and reflective of the complexity of experiences in these communities. If we truly believe the responsibility of the artist — and, by extension, curator — is to reflect the times, then this exhibition is as overdue as it is timely.”

Says Bhutto: “Muslims in general — and queer Muslims more specifically — have often been spoken about and for. In many ways, we’re overrepresented but not by ourselves. We don’t need to have our agency robbed.”

Work by Parisa Parnian, a shirt from her “Dirty Phoenix and the Asses of Evil” burlesque show. Photo by Jonathan Curiel

The exhibit encourages discussions that go far beyond art. Bhutto, who has performed in drag under the name Faluda Islam, will moderate a panel talk at SOMArts, “Queering Islam,” on Thursday, Feb. 8, from 5 to 8 p.m., with Daayiee Abdullah, a gay African-American imam; Ali Mushtaq, a Pakistani-American “Mr. Leather” competitor; and Parisa Parnian, an Iranian-American artist whose works are part of “The Third Muslim.”

Parnian and Bhutto are good examples of the evolution that gay and lesbian Muslims have made in the past 10 years. In the mid-2000s, Parnian performed a burlesque show in New York, “Dirty Phoenix and the Asses of Evil,” that addressed her queerness and Muslim and Iranian identity. She
talked and danced around stages in wild clothing (some designed by Mortezaie) that delved into complicated issues of religion, sexuality, immigration, and the like. The performances were done mostly in gay or lesbian dive bars. Parnian, who was born in Iran and raised in Arizona, knew Mortezaie, who lived then in New York. But Parnian tells SF Weekly that she still felt isolated and challenged by the different communities that she frequented.

“I felt so alone,” Parnian says by phone from Los Angeles, where she runs a lifestyle brand and design studio. “It was a completely self-propelled need to create a platform for a voice that I felt was, ‘Why is no one talking about this?’ There was so much Islamophobia and fear of Middle Eastern people. It was everywhere. At the same time, I was being feared and viewed with suspicion by traditional Muslim society, and traditional Iranian society who looked at me with my short masculine hair and my very queer aesthetic and went, ‘What’s that?’ … Even in my own insular, queer art-dyke scene of Brooklyn, I was invisible. No one was engaging me, and I have a lot to say.”

Bhutto, who’s 27, is from Pakistan’s most prominent political family. He was named after his grandfather, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was Pakistan’s prime minister and president in the 1970s. Bhutto’s grandfather was jailed and executed by the country’s military government, which had deposed him in a 1977 coup. Bhutto’s aunt, Benazir Bhutto, was twice Pakistan’s prime minister before her assassination in 2007. Bhutto’s mother, Ghinwa Bhutto, is still actively involved in Pakistani politics. His father, Murtaza Bhutto, was a political figure killed in a controversial 1996 police shootout.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto grew up in Pakistan before studying art in Scotland, later getting his MFA in Studio Art from the San Francisco Art Institute. It’s while living in San Francisco that Bhutto publicly emerged as queer, and where he met and befriended Yas Ahmed, the exhibit’s co-curator. The meeting happened against the backdrop of the 2016 Orlando nightclub massacre, where a Muslim-American — who might have been closeted — murdered scores of gay revelers.

“When the Pulse massacre happened, we all felt jolted in the community — I had a supportive network, but especially as a queer Muslim I didn’t really feel like there was anyone who understood my specific positions and how I was feeling, and the fear I had of being judged,” Bhutto tells SF Weekly. “I felt alone as someone who was both queer and Muslim. And I reached out to someone in Pakistan, who put me in touch with someone in Washington, who put me into contact with Yas. We became friends very quickly.”

“The Third Muslim” may travel to Oakland in the next year. It arrived at SOMArts eight months before the de Young Museum’s “Contemporary Muslim Fashion,” which is the first major museum exhibit that centers on Muslim sartorial identity. Around the world, including Muslim-majority countries, LGBTQ Muslims are more visible culturally and politically — but they also face opposition. Last July, at the Islamic Society of North America’s annual conference in Illinois — one of the year’s biggest Muslim-American events — staff members reportedly kicked out members of an organization, Muslims for Progressive Values, who offered pamphlets that advocated for women and those who identify as LGBT. Numair Abbasi, a Pakistani artist scheduled to appear in “The Third Muslim,” had his work confiscated by Karachi authorities who inspected his shipment and apparently objected to its gay themes. At SOMArts, Bhutto and Ahmed have a frame and a note where Abbasi’s work would have gone. The note says that “Queer and trans* Muslim voices will not be silenced, and our stories will not be erased.”

“Customs opened it and they didn’t like what they saw, which is mainly nude drawings,” Bhutto says of Abbasi’s art. “Numair’s work is very surreal. He’s shown a lot in Pakistan; he has a platform. But he never attempted to ship his work before. So that was a reality check — not just for him but a lot of us.”

The voices are loud in “The Third Muslim,” but there are also works that can be considered “quiet” and “peaceful.” Among them is Rabba Mere Haal Da Mehram tu … (oh God, you are the only one who understands my feelings), a video piece by Pakistani artist Mohsin Shafi that features a covered figure and sounds from nature, outdoors, and the Islamic call-to-prayer. Mortezaie — who was born in Iran and grew up in Marin County — offers one of the exhibit’s more flamboyant works. The coupled mannequins reference Mahmoud Asgari and Ayaz Marhoni, Iranian teens whom the Iranian regime hanged in 2005; and Mahmoud of Ghazni, an 11th-century Persian ruler, and Malik Ayaz, a former slave who reputedly became Ghazni’s lover. All three of Mortezaie’s mannequins pose as celebrated stars on a red carpet back-dropped by fictitious corporate and government sponsors, some of which commodify and fetishize them while others politicize and demonize them, as with an Iranian detergent that boils women’s rights to death and a Trump figure that is annihilating the world.

“It’s bringing them back in a state of strength, but they’re still products,” Mortezaie says of the two figures who are coupled.

Mortezaie says his art in “The Third Muslim” is his most personal — and that his participation effectively prevents him from returning to Iran, which he last visited in 2005 “and I love dearly. … This was hard for me. I’ve done work for the longest time where I was careful. It was political. But I’ve never been able to talk about gender and sexuality. This exhibit has freed me and has given me strength. I’m able to say, ‘This is my tribe.’ ”

Bhutto says the exhibit underlines a truth that is hard for many people to realize: “One of the most complicated arguments that we’re constantly trying to say is that being queer and being Muslim are not oppositional.”

The Third Muslim: Queer and Trans* Muslim Narratives of Resistance and Resilience, through Feb. 22, at SOMArts, 934 Brannan St. Free; 415-863-1414 or somarts.org

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